Military History/Dragoons


QUESTION: Hello Keith.
If dragoons were mounted infantry who rode into battle then dismounted to fight, who looked after the horses ?

ANSWER: You hit upon one of the inherent weaknesses of the Dragoons as a combat arm.  In most instances, including the US Cavalry of the Plains War of the 1870's.  Men were assigned duties as Horse Holders.  In the US Cavalry this was one man in four, so immediately the unit lost 25% of its strength from the firing line.

During Napoleonic times, I believe that there were few instances where Dragoons were actually used as Infantry, but were used more as medium cavalry.  They were armed with carbines, so just before or after a charge they could volley with their carbines and then melee.  I cannot find it plausable that Dragoons could stand up to a Regiment front, exchanging volleys nor would they have much more success as skirmishers against a Chasseur a Peid or Voltiguer.  I also find it hard to believe that a cavalryman of the era, who thought himself better than the infantryman, would willingly dismount and fight on foot. He posed more of a threat on horseback than on foot.  The Dragoon was just an experiment and eventually morphed into conventional light cavalry.

In the US army on the Plains they were used in the intended role and were only marginally successful.  Their tactic was to dismount in the face of the enemy and form a skirmish firing line.  Again with the corresponding weakness of 25% of their firing power.  Horse holders were detailed to the rear to protect the mounts, less the whole unit be left on foot.

In the face of the Plains indians, particularly the Commanche, this tactic only became viable in the late 1800's.  The Commanche wars began in the 1830's with Mexico. Anglo colonists were invited into Texas to form a frontier bullwark between the commanches and the Mexican settlers in N. Mexico.  Commanches raided into Mexico from Central Texas, called Commancheria.  Believe it or not, the Commanches kicked the Apache out of Texas, pushed the Souix out of Oklahoma and Kansas and claimed the whole area for themselves with ruthless efficiency and brutal raiding.
It was only when the Ango Texas settlers and Rangers obtained the 1847 Colt Walker Dragoon model pistol that things changed, along with the spread of disease among the tribes.  Before that the settlers armed with muzzle loading rifles would dismount, fire once then get pin cushioned with arrows or spitted on lances before they could fire again.  The Commanches were surprised by their first encounter with Rangers after Texas became a republic when the met the Colt Walker for the first time.  They lost numerous warriors not knowing they were faced with repeating magnum pistols.  

When Texas became a state the US army was charged with protecting the frontier and made a lot of the same mistakes the Rangers had already solved.  It was not until after the Civil War that the Commanches were suppressed.  Of course most of the Hollywood coverage of the West deals with the Sioux wars and not the Commanches, which is strange, since the Commanche wars lasted almost 40 years and the Sioux wars only around 10.

Custer's last stand is a perfect example of a standup fight where Dragoon tactics went head to head with light cavalry-chasseur a pied tactics (light infantry).   The various companies of Custers command, dismounted and were singly over run by indians who had also dismounted and exchanged fire.  The best example is Company C I think it was, on Calhoun Ridge, they formed a firing line to stop the advance of indians up the ridge horses were taken to a depression on the back side of the ridge, the horse holders were attacked, the horses scattered along with the extra ammunition in the troopers saddle bags.  The company then withdrew in a rout on foot or horseback if they were lucky enough to gain a mount to the west toward last stand ridge.  Another company joined the rout.  What is telling is that nearly all the officers of his companies were found on Last Stand Hill indicating the officers led the rout.  The same thing happened in the valley attack on the Camp from the East led by Reno.  They dismounted, formed a firing line and could not withstand the indian skirmishers and mounted riders who threatened to outflank them.  They remounted and fled in what became a panicked rout.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thanks, but another question. Would the dragoons seek out any horse to remount or did they have to search for their own in the mass of horses ?
I ask because I live in England a few miles from the site of a Civil War battle fought in 1643. Of the 2650 troops involved around 600 were dragoons, I've been to the site and was wondering how 600 riderless horses would be controlled in a battle with cannon and grapeshot flying everywhere.

Here are some comments I found about Dragoons of the the era about which you are asking:

During the English Civil War dragoons were used for a variety of tasks: providing outposts, holding defiles or bridges in the front or rear of the main army, lining hedges or holding enclosures, and providing dismounted musketeers to support regular cavalry.[6] Supplied with inferior horses and more basic equipment, the dragoon regiments were cheaper to recruit and maintain than the expensive regiments of cavalry.

So taking those comments into consideration, I would look at the battlefield which you were studying, and accounts of the battle and see if you can determine where the horses might have been held whilst the troopers were dismounted.  The horses were probably kept in defilade, behind structures, a hill or hummock, hedge or other terraine feature.

Do accounts of the battle actually say the Dragoons were use in combat or were they being used as security?

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Keith H. Patton


I can answer questions pertaining to weapons and tactics, personalities, battles, and strategies in european and U.S. history.


I was a history major, and had done extensive research in the subject area. I have designed and tested numerous computer games for various
historical periods.

B.A History M.S. Science
I have had the opportunity to live abroad and walk numerous battlefields both in the United States, Europe, and the Pacific.

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